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Paradise found in Arequipa

October 7, 2009
View of El Misti from my hostel roof

View of El Misti from my hostel roof

Especially after Puno, Arequipa was a breath of fresh air. The sun shines bright and hot all day long, and there’s never a cloud in the sky. The beautiful snow-topped old volcano El Misti hovers about the city, creating gorgeous views from everywhere (including the rooftop of my hostel!)

In fact, it doesn’t feel anything like Peru. I feel like I’m in Europe. People from Arequipa, they say, don’t even consider themselves Peruvians, but first Arequipeños. They call Arequipa “La Ciudad Blanca,” or the White City, because all the buildings are a beautiful white color.

Kid chasing pigeons

Kid chasing pigeons

The main square, the Plaza de Armas, is absolutely gorgeous. It’s surrounded on all sides by beautiful white European-style buildings, all with balconies, and also a gorgeous cathedral on one side. The plaza is full of benches, pigeons, and people, with a nice fountain in the center. All day, everyday there are people taking up nearly every spot on every bench in the plaza. All day there are old men feeding the pigeons and little kids chasing them.

It seems that Arequipa is a tourist destination for all people, not just foreigners, and there are always groups of people or families gathered in the square, taking pictures in front of the fountain or the cathedral.

On the bus ride from Puno, I was listening to my ipod and the song “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” came on. I felt this incredibly strong urge to have my own dock on some bay somewhere to sit and relax, to feel the breeze of the sea on me, to just unwind and think. I knew Arequipa was inland, and overall just didn’t think there was any chance I’d find such a place here in South America. When I first arrived in the Plaza de Armas and sat on a bench, though, I felt I’d found something pretty close.

Plaza de Armas (the cathedral)

Plaza de Armas (the cathedral)

I sat on the plaza nursing an ice cream cone and it felt like all was right with the world. The plaza was my escape. I eventually dragged myself away to walk around the rest of the town — seeing church after church, with a monastery thrown in. But I found myself pulled back to the plaza. Unfortunately, later in the afternoon it seemed that I had some pull as well. Sitting alone on a bench, I soon found Peruvian man after Peruvian man — from a young rock climbing guide to an old man who often seemed to forget what he was in the middle of saying — approaching me to talk, to practice their English.

Obviously this is going to be something common in Peru, but it’s still unfortunate that I always find myself feeling a little suspicious or on edge when someone approaches me to talk. Unfortunately, you hear too many stories of the innocent old man coming to practice his English with you to distract you while someone else robs you. I only had my purse, though, clutched tightly in my lap, and it was daylight in a crowded square so I wasn’t too worried. I did have to draw the line at an invitation to go dancing at a more “local” place out of town — there comes a point when you have to just err on the side of the caution, when you’re a girl traveling alone.

Otherwise, Arequipa has been wonderful, if still annoyingly overpopulated with couples! Yesterday I visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos, where they have the body of “Juanita,” a young girl sacrifice that was preserved in ice at the top of the mountain Ampato. It was a really fascinating tour, full of interesting facts and artifacts (there were many other child sacrifices found as well, but none at the top, or as well-preserved, as Juanita). I couldn’t take any pictures though, as they don’t allow you to bring anything in.

I also went inside the cathedral on the Plaza. I had been having a tough day, feeling lonely and missing people and home, but sitting in the church brought me some calm. They were playing some beautiful, serene music, and I felt like it was Christmas at home, that peace and calm you feel at the Christmas Eve service. I just sat there for a while, half-observing the other tourists strolling through taking pictures or listening to guides explaining different parts of the church. I wasn’t interested in any of that, just in the silence and calm that existed in this huge, nearly empty building — such a different world from the noisy chaos that existed right outside its doors.

The rest of my time has been spent relaxing, wandering the town or sitting in the plaza, or lazing in the lounge of my hostel, watching movies with other random travelers. Arequipa is a good place to relax, but tomorrow I will get out of relax mode and into physical mode! I am going to do a three day trek through Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. It’s supposed to be beautiful.

But I almost forgot! When I arrived at my hostel (which was actually my second hostel; I first stayed in another Point hostel, which was quite a ways out of town and just as antisocial — no more staying in The Point hostels for me!) they told me there were two supermarkets in town. I didn’t make much of this, as a supermarket usually means a shelf of sodas, water, cookies, and warm yogurts. I felt like a snack, though, and so headed to the one they’d told me about on the plaza.

I walked in and immediately found myself gaping. It was like the day Becca and I discovered the big supermarket in Florence. I couldn’t believe the choices! There were cereals, a deli, pasta and rice, oils and spices, even personal care products! It was like entering heaven — there was even cold yogurt! I was so overwhelmed with the options that I ended up only purchasing water, cold yogurt (haven’t seen that since Argentina!) and some off-brand M&Ms.

Inca Kola display at Plaza Vea

Inca Kola display at Plaza Vea

Later that day I was craving another snack and decided to check out the other supermarket they’d mentioned, Plaza Vea,  just a block downhill from the hostel. Suddenly the first supermarket seemed like NOTHING! It was exactly like the Tesco by where I lived in Thailand — basically a Wal-Mart. They even had big screen TVs and electronics, clothing, everything you could imagine for sale. I walked around with my mouth hanging open, totally unable to believe what I was seeing. There was a huge section just with cheese and meat! It was more than heaven.

I got a huge chunk of cheese for just over $1. That and some crackers ended up being my dinner for two nights in a row. Who would’ve thought that my everyday backpacker’s diet from Europe would end up being the feast of kings for me here in South America? It was sublime. Again, the biggest problem was there was just too much to choose from.

I went back today intending to buy something else for dinner tonight, but that’s where I’m again reminded of one of the cons of solo travel: everything is too much. Especially since I’m leaving for a three day trek tomorrow, I couldn’t buy anything that I wouldn’t eat in one day. It wasn’t worth buying bread, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, that I couldn’t possibly eat all on my own in one night. And buying pasta and sauce would just mean cooking alone for one, and then lugging it around from place to place until I could finish it. I’m crossing my fingers that there will exist such a place like Plaza Vea in Cusco, where I will be spending more time.

All in all, Arequipa has been full of wonderful surprise after wonderful surprise. While I still haven’t met any kindred souls to share another part of my journey with, at least I have found a great place to relax and feel a bit more at peace.


First: The Point Arequipa – (24 soles/nt for biggest dorm) – I stayed because they had wifi (didn’t work) and a hot tub (never used), but the people weren’t friendly at all and there wasn’t any really good place to hang out, just a bunch of too small spaces that weren’t ideal for socializing. The bathrooms were weird too.

Second: Arequipay Backpackers House – (20 soles for 5 bed dorm) – While there’s still not a ton of people to meet here, I like it much better. There’s a decent common room with TV/movies and computers, there’s good wifi, the rooms are decent enough, people are more friendly. Still only maybe 75% on the social scale though (maybe weekends are better?) But it also just depends, I was recommended to stay here from some guys who stayed and had a really great time. People are always coming and going for treks and such, though. I’ll be back on Saturday, so we’ll see if there’s a difference.

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